Maple Trees in Place of Jesus

What would a maple tree do?

I don’t see it quite so often anymore, but for a time folks would pose this question: what would Jesus do?

maple trees visible through the hayloft sky light . . .

I think it’s a poor question on several counts, though I understand the folks asking it had good intentions, and certainly in some instances, asking and answering that question, brought about desirable results. But still.

I’m not sure my proposed alternative – what would a maple tree do? – is any better, but I do think it might nudge our thinking in interesting directions, which in turn might prove helpful in terms of the world we bring forth.

Anytime someone says “Jesus” it is prudent to ask what they mean. It is one of the more complicated pair of syllables one can utter.  When it is said, is what is meant the historical Jesus? The Jewish peasant who was a follower of John the Baptist, assumed and transformed his teacher’s ministry for several years, and then was executed by the Romans?

To say one is going to do what that Jesus did is not easy because we don’t really know what he did. That is, constructing a rational narrative for that man’s life is a matter of informed (to greater and lesser degrees) conjecture because there is so little evidence with which to work and all of it is deeply biased.

Almost inevitably, when we talk about Jesus then we are really talking about our own political and cultural interests and agendas now.

There is nothing wrong with talking about political and cultural ideals and projects, but to assume that the historical Jesus would be on board with them is a largely unjustified leap.

Folks might also be referring to the Jesus of scripture. But that Jesus is an idealized (as in “existing in imagination or idea,” not “the best” or “perfect”) Jesus. It is Jesus according to an author or authors who had specific goals and constructed a Jesus  that furthered their goals. (Hence the generous variation in the Pauline epistles). Since scripture does not have one author but many, there are many Jesuses in the New Testament, and even more in the various communities that have evolved in response to its scriptural variegation.

That Jesus – because it is an idea – can be put to literally any end one likes and so more or less ceases to function in any meaningful way. Jesus opposes the death penalty! Jesus supports the death penalty for cop-killers! And so forth.

Critically, nobody can admit that the scriptural Jesus is merely an idealized Jesus – they always claim it is the true historical Jesus. Why? Because absent that embodied authority, their position becomes merely one among many, and not the right or true position.

There is a lesson in that for those of us still working through what it means to be a body or a spirit or a spirit in a body or a body with a spirit . . .

One can see this dynamic at play in the community of A Course in Miracles as well. This Jesus also functions in an idealized way – rewriting traditional Christian concepts like forgiveness and atonement (though not quite as radically as Ken Wapnick and others proposed), indulging nonduality, et cetera – and is also the historical Jesus. Indeed, in the creation stories that surround the scribing of the ACIM material, Helen is positioned as having been one of Jesus’s followers in a previous life.

In other words, when somebody asks “what would Jesus do?” it is always code for “what do I want to do in this situation?” Using Jesus is just a way of blessing off on our preferences, of implying that what we do is right or true or The Way. And while sometimes this produces happy results – feeding the poor, visiting the imprisoned – it can also produce unhappy results like discrimination and other forms of violence.

morning coffee . . . marble slab for a coaster . . . light in the hay loft lovely . . .

Is my suggestion – what would a maple tree do? – any better?

Jesus was a human observer whose range of activity – both mental and physical – approximately mirrors our own. He could lay a hand on the sick. He could lecture a crowd. He could eat bread and drink wine. He could go for a walk or kneel to pray or draw in the sand.

A maple tree does not do those things. It can’t. Thus, to compare ourselves to a maple tree is to fundamentally reframe our idea of what it means to act and think. It moves us out of the familiar “human” range and into another range.

Maple trees do not move. They don’t travel. That means that what happens, happens. When a hurricane comes, they can’t move to another town. If somebody comes by with an ax, they can’t hide. They can’t fight back. If a squirrel decides to live in their branches, they can’t say “I’d rather save that space for a chickadee.”

Maple trees don’t foliate in winter. Tough luck for them if they’d like to. In fall their foliage dies in lovely reds, yellows and oranges. Tough luck for them if they want to try blue, purple and silver. In spring, they produce a sweet sap. Tough luck for them if they’d rather produce beer. Or just take a break from sap-production altogether.

Do you see the trend emerging here?

In our human observing, maple trees are essentially passive. Their relationship to their environment – their way of living in a world – is one of acceptance. What happens, happens. Their ability to actively shape is muted. They don’t have dramatic powers of resistance. If an evil man who has just slaughtered a thousand men sits beneath a maple tree, he will enjoy the same cool shade as a virtuous woman who just midwifed a baby would.

Is the challenge the maple tree poses becoming clear?

Maple trees need sustenance to live; in that sense, they have appetites. Yet they don’t take more rain or sunlight than is given to them. The rain that is given is what they receive. The sunlight that is given is what they receive. The soil is the soil; they don’t shop for a replacement.

Is the discipline the maple tree demands becoming clear?

So when we are faced with a crisis – when we would call on the model of Jesus to help us choose how to act – what happens when we call instead on a maple tree?

I think – that is, it seems to me in this wordy and meandering way of living – that maple trees counsel acceptance, patience, and tolerance. They would counsel these practices to a radical (a demanding and unfamiliar) degree.

bookshelf detail . . ,

Yet we are not maple trees! If a tiger is bearing down on us, we should by all means move. But maybe we should also not adopt a policy of killing or containing all tigers because they are incredibly efficient carnivorous killers.

If we are hungry, then we should eat. But maybe also opt for food that was grown in a sustainable way, the value of which is measured not only in its cost at the grocery store. Maybe align our appetite with justice and love: farmers and homesteaders who are thinking not only of economic bottom lines but also ecological wholeness.

We are not maple trees – but we are not Jesus either! We are just the human observer that we are, doing our living in coordinated ways, with other human and animal and plant and mineral observers. Together we bring forth a world. The question is always what world shall we bring forth? Since love is the foundation of our being – the pliant nutritious loam of our shared existence – what actions and coordinations most probably and efficiently and sustainably bring love forth?

Jesus is okay but confusing to the point of distraction. So maybe let Jesus go on that account. At least see what happens when you do. Maybe become the disciple of maple trees. Maybe find out what a maple tree does in the domain of its experience and then – to the full reach of your own being – do the same in the domain of your own.

Rational Thinking With Respect to Spiritual Mysteries

We might say that practical answers are important according to context.

For example, I want to bake bread and make soup for dinner.

It helps that there are bread and soup recipes. It helps there is a coop nearby that sells vegetables, flour, herbs and spices. It helps that I have homemade bags in which to store what I buy.

The recipes, the coop, and the bags are all made by people. People used language and engineering and design plans to put these things together and then sustain and share them.

seeding the garden . . . that time of year . . .

In our home, we put a lot of thought into gardening and animals. We think about fencing, pastures, veggie rotation, when to plant and when to harvest, how to better age compost, putting food up, bartering with neighbors . . .

This sort of rational informed thinking and planning is very useful for gardening and creating a safe, local, sustainable food supply.

Is it as useful for awakening? Or enlightenment? Encountering nondual experience? Whatever word or phrase we want to use?


If we agree that there are many paths up the mountain, then one of them must be the way of rigorous scholarship, intellectual effort and rational thinking. That is, one of the ways up the mountain is the same as the one that allows us to make and sustain a homestead.

But in going up the mountain this way, we have to take care not to disparage paths that are characterized less by reason and more by, say, devotion. Entering into personal relationships with idealized Christs, writing Rumi-like paeans to the Goddess, worshiping on our knees, and so forth.

There are folks for whom that kind of approach to spirituality works. I don’t want to ignore or otherwise denigrate it by pretending my way is superior.

If all paths lead to the summit, then all we can say of a given path is that it is effective relative to our perspective. Because we want all being to have the same freedom we have, we must recognize that other folks will choose other paths, and those paths will be effective relative to their perspective.

Yet even as we take these varying paths, we are on the same mountain, and our passing-through affects all of us.

Our garden is not separate from other gardens in the area. For example, by including many flowers, we nurture local bee populations, which strengthens other gardens (as they, in turn, strengthen ours). By composting literally everything that can be composted, we minimize waste (and waste removal costs and energy) and build up the soil for the gardeners and homesteaders who will come after us.

In a similar way, our commitment to growing and raising food on our homestead, supplementing that production through a network of local farmers and homesteaders, and shopping locally for the balance, ripples in non-trivial ways across local, regional, national and global economies.

mulch hay in the garden
mulch hay ready to be scattered through the garden as planting begins in earnest . . .

We do the work we are doing, with the understanding that its effects do not end with whatever limits we impose on our collective human experience.

In a sense, I want all people to be as thoughtful as is possible with respect to conserving and nurturing natural resources. Being aware of how we consume seems to make the world safer and more productive for all lives. But the way in which folks do this – their readiness, their willingness, their access (to land, cooperatives, income et cetera) is not uniform. Love obligates us to see and honor this.

So in all things we do what we can. A reasonable goal seems to be to make our doings as coherent and loving as possible. This is true for our so-called spiritual practice as well. Give attention to it. What works? What doesn’t? What do you wish would work but can’t seem to make work? What issues keep coming back? Who is helpful in your process? How do you define “helpful?” and so forth.

We are already awake. Nonduality is the ground of our being. But distractions abound. Sometimes rather than walk our path we defend it. Or try to force others to walk it. Sometimes we close our eyes and then complain that we can’t see. Sometimes we are content with what is given. There is no law that says you have to climb a mountain, or go all the way to the summit. It’s okay to not worry and be happy. It really is.

Most of what distracts us goes away naturally when we slow down and respond to life as it appears without making a big deal of it. In a sense, one comes to the realization that not all mysteries have to solved. Some of them we can just enjoy.

Accepting Life As Is

In a sense, the work is simply to not wish that life be other than it is, at this moment. That sounds easy but it is actually very hard. If we look closely, we will see that we are in a state of apparently perpetual resistance to life. We compare it to past iterations and find it wanting, we dream of better manifestations going forward . . .

This is essentially a mechanical process to which we acquiesce. Thought hums along doing what it does and we don’t question it. We just assume that it must be true and inevitable. But even a few minutes of attention clarifies that thought is nowhere near as reliable or structured as it seems. In fact, it’s kind of a mess.

We don’t have to do anything about this other than see it. If we can see it, then it will naturally be undone. It’s odd but true: part of the reason that thought (or the ego, if you like) gets away with so much is because we just don’t see it. In the light of attention, it ceases to function because it is a kind of darkness and in light of any kind, it ceases to exist.

The temptation is always to look for more than what is. We become attentive, and life clarifies a little, and we start to look for something additional: a little rainbow, a little angel, a little nudge from Jesus. When we are looking for more, we are no longer looking at what is, and then the default mode kicks back in. Wanting more is what caused Lucifer’s fall from Heaven: we can appreciate the symbolism.

But we are not bad and Heaven’s doors – I am speaking metaphorically – never close. Picture a sign above them: “Open twenty four seven, even on Christmas.” When we see that we are distracted, we are seeing again, and thus we are no longer distracted. Heaven is a state of awareness devoid of a wish it be anything else. When you fall, you return by virtue of attention: and you see that you are still there. It is as if something goes on, even when we are not giving attention to it.

Most spiritual paths and traditions eventually lead one to this juncture, however articulated: attention reveals that there is no separation between the observer and the observed. Again, to get hung up on the articulation is to miss the point. The point is that you are not separate from truth, life, love, God. This is a plain, simple truth. We can apprehend it with our natural intelligence. Common sense can be very helpful. It turns out we know what to do, which is why we are so good at not doing it.

So the point more and more is just to get into that space of attentiveness because there, everything pretty much takes care of itself. We know what to do and how to act.

On Avoiding Conceptual Dead Ends

Say that we are climbing a mountain and the trail becomes hard to follow. We come to a post with twenty signs nailed to it. Nineteen are marked with lines and squiggles that mean nothing to us. One reads “trail to summit marked with orange circles.” We follow its directive and, lo and behold, arrive at the summit.

. . . of the many ways it is said:
do not enshrine
your preference
for one over the other

Thus we say of the sign that pointed the way: “that is the one true sign.”

We all do this, often without noticing. Don’t kid yourself that you’re the one who wouldn’t do it. The best we can hope for is to notice when we do it – as it happens or soon after – and then update our belief system accordingly (more on this anon).

What should we actually say of the sign? We might say something like: “for me, that was the most helpful sign. I can’t speak to the others because I didn’t understand them.”

Not understanding things inheres in the human experience. There are gaps in all our knowledge – collectively and individually. Since we can’t know everything, we have to delegate – let neuroscientists know about the brain, auto mechanics about car engines, et cetera.

But if our ignorance hurts others – that is, if we weaponize it, then we have an obligation to inform ourselves. People have died painful deaths for not agreeing that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It’s important to realize that we could have been the ones who did the killing and felt their actions were mete and just, and then not do that.

We need to interact more effectively with ignorance. It is not an error to defer to a brain surgeon when it comes to a tumor in our skull. It is an error to assert that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” when there are obviously so many other ways.

In the analogy of the mountain trail and its signs, how might we update our ignorance?

Well, we might gaze about the summit. We might notice that we share it with folks who do not read or speak English. Thus, we can infer that some of the signs we did not personally understand were nevertheless accurate for some people.

We could also study language. Even a cursory review would clarify that some of the signs we didn’t personally comprehend said more or less the same exact thing as our sign. If we can say this of ten of the twenty signs, perhaps we can infer it is true of the balance as well.

We might also infer from the fact that somebody put up twenty signs – including one that was helpful in our specific cognitive, perceptual and cultural context – that it is more likely than not they were trying to help as many people as possible. The sign-maker was trying to optimize her helpfulness.

All of these actions would help undo our allegiance to “our” sign. All of them would nudge us in the direction of understanding concepts in terms of “helpful” and “unhelpful,” rather than merely “right” or “wrong.”

The foregoing paragraphs emphasize two ideas.

First, it is wise not to become overly attached to our concepts. They are not “right” or “wrong” so much as “helpful” or “not helpful.” They are pointers, and pointers are never that to which they point. And that to which they point is always more complex and variable than what the pointer can possibly indicate.

This is true whether we are talking about A Course in Miracles or Christan Science or Zen Buddhism or Zoroastrianism or Jungian psychotherapy or crystal healing.

Second, our concepts are tools. Their job is to help us do things – like feed the poor, shelter the homeless, nurture bees, minimize waste, resolve conflict peacefully, bake bread, make art, et cetera. They are good to the extent they are helpful. To the extent they are not, then they should be discarded.

A tool can be very handy for a given job but completely irrelevant for subsequent jobs. For example, a hammer will help me build a horse barn, but it will not help me groom the horse. A saw will help me trim deadfall branches into fence posts, but it will not help me knead bread.

I might have a favorite saw or hammer – one my Dad gave me, say, as his Dad did before him – but it’s still just a saw or hammer. Lots of folks have them, and most of them will do the job as effectively as the one I’ve got.

In other words, the way I feel about my tool won’t make it work better or worse. Two plus two is not five just because I shout “five” with blazing passion, or because my father said it was “five” on his deathbed, or because that’s what the high priests say it is.

Is there another way to be in relationship with concepts? Our default mode is to equate them with truths and then defend them. But perhaps there is another way, one that accepts them conditionally, as subject to inquiry.

That is, rather than say the sign that got us to the summit is THE SIGN we might do something like the following:

1. Acknowledge the tendency to enshrine the concept (our sign is THE SIGN);

2. Acknowledge how this enshrinement promotes a need to defend the sign against other signs, and against those for whom another sign was THE SIGN;

3. Gather evidence;

4. Evaluate the evidence;

5. Talk to folks in order to broaden the inquiry and ensure we are fairly evluating the evidence; and then

6. Either accept the concept, update the concept, or discard the concept precisely as the previous 5 steps direct us.

Concepts – like all tools – need to be effective. Effectiveness can be measured. It is tangible. Do the concepts make us smarter? Gentler? More inclined to help others rather than hurt or stymie them?

Do our concepts help bring forth love or something other than love?

And, perhaps most importantly, are we willing to go slowly and collectively in order to find out?

Letting Up The Stranglehold On “Our” Reality

It is helpful to see that the apparently unified world we perceive – and in which we do all our living and loving – conforms to the observer that we are. It does not include what we cannot perceive or cognize; what we perceive and cognize is constrained by the organism we are.

spider-webThese constraints are not with creative effect, however. In essence, the distinctions they make are the world that we perceive, engage with, respond to, et cetera. It’s a bit like (but not precisely like) tennis: the boundaries that make the court, and the net that divides and elevates it are what make the game possible. Absent those constraints, tennis would not exist.

Given this, any reference to the Whole or the All or the Truth or the Source or even simply to Reality reflects a fundamental confusion. There is such a thing as the whole unity an observer perceives, but it is only “whole” relative to the observer itself. And since the observer is always changing, then the relative whole is as well.

We cannot escape this fact! We cannot be other than the observer we are – we can’t see the world the way a butterfly does, or hear it the way a dog does, or live on it the way a sunflower does. But it is possible to believe that we can escape or even have escaped this fact. Indeed, most of us live in that belief all the time. In a way, it is the default mode for human observers

If we give careful attention to the experience we are having, we might notice that it includes – as an underlying, apparently built-in presumption – that it is real, reliable, trustworthy, et cetera. We can describe it, measure it, make predictions about what will happen if we do this or that, and so forth. It is reliable.

This reliability tends to support the notion that what we perceive is in fact the real world, faithfully rendered via perception and cognition in order that we might effectively and meaningfully engage with it. Evolution designed us accordingly. To suggest otherwise is counter-intuitive.

But what if that premise – that perception reveals the one true external world – is wrong?

That an observer’s perception and cognition should be functional – effectively functional, complexly functional – is no surprise. How else would an organism survive? Yet to conflate that functionality with veridicality – i.e., with truthfulness – may not be justified.

Chris Fields (in conjuction with Donald Hoffman, Chetan Prakash and Manish Singh) has argued extensively and persuasively that there is ample evidence undermining the traditional notion that an observer’s perception recreates a faithful model of an external observed world.

. . . the classical notion of an observer-independent “objective” reality comprising spatially-bounded, time-persistent “ordinary objects” and well-defined local causal processes must simply be abandoned.

This builds on Hoffman’s notion that absolute reality as such is naturally foreclosed to the human organism. What human observers perceive are simply descriptions designed to facilitate helpful local response to local phenomena. They are highly functional user-generated interfaces that allow us to survive and reproduce.

Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.

Assume for a moment that Fields and Hoffman et al are correct: that we are observers whose capacity for observation is not about fidelity to Truth – not about reality – but rather about what works in order to maximize organismic survivability.

What does that do to our sense of spiritual searching? Of self-inquiry? Especially if that search/inquiry includes – subtly, subconsciously or otherwise – the notion that we are making contact with reality? Encountering Truth? Becoming one with God or the Cosmos or Life?

There are no “right” answers to these questions, in the sense that there is a “right” answer to “who won the 2013 world series?” Indeed, perhaps the most helpful aspect of these questions is simply the way they redirect our attention away from supposedly dispositive answers and back to experience itself.

That is, rather than assume that there is some supernatural entity or arcane lore or metaphysical law, the acquisition of which will ensure our entry into a state preferable to our current one, we can simply begin to give attention to the experience we are having right now.

It is nontrivial – it’s actually kind of incredible – to realize that when one is eating a pancake they are not climbing a mountain. I don’t mean the intellectual realization that we can’t do two things at once; I mean the literal experience of being present to experience, as it is happening. It is the realization that there is always only this: this this. This very this.

Really, we are simply nudging our interior sense of certainty askew a bit. We are just looking into experience and seeing what it is, what it’s like, what it includes, doesn’t include, et cetera. What happens when we do this? It is a kind of happiness to discover the answer.

Consciousness: Evidence and Experts

One of things that’s hard about these questions of consciousness is that we are ostensibly very close to the evidence. We are conscious.  We are having the experience of consciousness. Why should we listen to anybody else? What could they tell us that we don’t already know by virtue of our very experience?

If I am eating a peanut butter sandwich, and somebody says “peanut butter sandwiches taste bad,” I am probably going to ignore them. Since I have all the evidence I need, why listen to anybody else?

Say that somebody comes along and says, “peanut butter sandwiches are bad for you because they have too many carbohydrates.” That’s different. Do I actually know how many carbs are in two slices of bread and some peanut butter? If I don’t, can I get with relative ease?

In this case, I am probably still going to ignore the other opinion. It will take a little time and effort, but I can get the evidence myself.

But that still leaves the question of whether those carbs are good for me. That’s trickier yet. I’m probably going to need to read up on that. What’s the latest research on carbs? What other issues are entailed? What is my confidence level in the material and my understanding of it?

If the person telling me peanut butter sandwiches aren’t healthy is a licensed nutritionist, I might skip the research and trust them. If they’re a professional clown, then maybe not.

But hopefully, if I don’t know the answer to the question, then I will admit that and take steps to either learn the answer or find an expert I trust to give me the answer.

Generally, evidence trumps experts. Say I hire a woodcutter to help me cut firewood. She says “those six maple trees will produce twelve cords of wood.” We cut them down, split and stack them and end up with . . . nine cords. In this case, the evidence has rendered the expert’s opinion null. I don’t need it – I’ve got the evidence right here.

All of this nudges us in the direction of trusting ourselves when it comes to consciousness. We can’t be in greater proximity to the evidence!

Trusting ourselves is fine so far as it goes. The question is how far it goes.

Say a doctor shows me an MRI  of my brain and says, “that looks like a tumor. We’ll need to do some more tests.” I tell her, “actually I feel fine. Haven’t had a headache in weeks. More tests aren’t necessary.”

In that case, I should trust the expert more and my experience less.

Between knowing that this peanut butter sandwich tastes awesome and what’s going on with our brain cells lies a vast spectrum. Somewhere along it we have to say: “I don’t have all the evidence” and then decide how to handle our ignorance. If we really need the evidence to function than we need to either a) get it ourselves or b) find a trustworthy expert or, perhaps ideally, c) some reasonable combination thereof.

The key is to recognize those instances when rather than rely on our own data we should update with new or revised data.

We are inclined to say – or believe others when they say – “consciousness is infinite and eternal” because that’s how it feels to us upon inquiry. But what if we’re wrong? What if “infinite and eternal” is just how it feels – or seems – when observed by a human being?

Most of us, when asked if we are below average, average, or above average, respond that we’re “above average.” But this is mathematically impossible! Some of us must be wrong.

We overestimate and misunderstand all the time. Why should our understanding of consciousness be any different?

On Apes, Bees, Consciousness and Prayer

Why work through a study of consciousness – reading James, Sperry, Edelman, Parfit, Chalmers et al. – when you can just say “it’s God.” Or “Theta.” Or “everything is just an appearance in infinite consciousness.”

Faced with a choice between a time and energy-consuming curriculum (it takes years to finish Consciousness 101, especially if you have to first brush up on biology, chemistry, physics, et cetera) and an easily articulated handful of sentences, most of us will take the sentences. Memorize them, spit them out when necessary, and call it a day. We are apes, not bees. We like the easier, softer way.

Faced with apparently big mysterious problems, human psychology tends to assign mysterious solutions. Why does it rain? God! Since it’s hard to prove a negative (God doesn’t exist), saying “God” is a handy way of stifling debate. “This is just how it is and has always been and if you can’t accept that, then I feel sorry for you / don’t accept you as a member of the tribe / will actively denigrate you / et cetera.”

If smart thoughtful people disagree with us, rather than double down on our position by attacking them – who needs those academic eggheads anyway – why not go slow, listen, reconsider our position, refine our argument etc. There is no law that says we have to change our minds. In fact, if we’re right, and we are patient and faithful to the dialogue, then the other mind will change.

In either case, we are standing for truth and coherence. Isn’t that where we want to be?

I was raised and educated Catholic by serious Catholics among lots of other serious Catholics. When somebody says “Jesus” or “Christ” my brain lights up in very familiar and comforting ways. When someone says to me, “all this is an appearance in Christ Mind which is what you are in truth,” I feel super loved and accepted. When I say it to someone else, I feel righteous and holy.

Those words make me feel good. And that which makes me feel good must actually be good. And what is good must be protected . . .

In the same way I don’t want anybody stealing my kale smoothie, I don’t want anybody spoiling my righteous self-affirming belief system. In both cases (and for largely the same reason, i.e., fear of suffering, pain and death), I will do what I have to do to take care of myself and my tribe. There’s a reason the Old Testament is so violent and it’s not because of “people back then.”

But you see, those two things – food and belief systems – are not equal. I do need food to survive. This is true for all human beings. But I do not need “Jesus” and “Christ.” Clearly lots of human beings do just fine without those two specific words. They’re optional (whether belief systems themselves are optional is another question for another post).

Thus, defending them as if they are actual milk and honey is . . . incoherent. Which in turn leads to further incoherence.

What if the origins of consciousness are more complex than the stories in the Upanishads? What if Nāgārjuna’s insights have been largely eclipsed by a couple centuries of science? What if Sri Ramana and Nisargadatta were just confused but didn’t know they were confused and so their confidence and serenity was just a benign illusion?

Would that be okay?

When I began to practice “giving attention,” one of the things that was almost instantly clear was the number of issues about which I knew very little but pretended to know a lot.

For example, I had spent decades in a religious mode – praying to God, reading about God, writing about God. I was confident that my understanding of Christian theology was sound and righteous. One day I was walking with a friend who is a doctor and an atheist. Our conversation went something like this:

Sean: That falling leaf is merely an appearance in consciousness.

Doctor: Why isn’t it an object moving in space being struck by photons that enter your eye and are processed by neural circuits in your brain?

Sean: Umm . . . That falling leaf is merely an appearance in consciousness.

What was interesting was that I couldn’t say why the falling leaf wasn’t a material process because I didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t a question of being right or wrong. I lacked the necessary information to participate in the dialogue. This was . . . troubling.

Imagine these two conversations:


Q: Why does it rain?

A: God makes it rain because He loves us and we obey Him.

Q: Oh. Ok.


Q: Why does it rain?

A: Well, there are these mechanisms called evaporation and condensation and gravity which, under certain environmental circumstances, together cause rain.

Q: Oh. Um, what is evaporation?

A: Evaporation is the process by which water is transformed into a gaseous state. When water molecules obtain a certain degree of heat energy and are close to the surface, they escape the water and rise.

Q: What’s a molecule again?

The first dialogue has the advantage of being simple and quick. The second is more demanding because it’s not intuitive. We have to work at it. If we don’t know what evaporation, condensation and gravity are, then we have to fill in those gaps. That “filling in” is likely to expose more gaps (what’s a molecule? what’s a gaseous state?). And since we’re apes, not bees, we only work for things when it’s really (and obviously) necessary.

It’s like that with consciousness. We assume that our experience of consciousness is accurate and true. We cannot find its edge, so it must be infinite. We cannot find where it began, so it must be eternal.

In the ancestral environment, that logic made a lot of sense. Knowledge was what you experienced and what people in your tribe told you. God makes it rain: that’s the end of the inquiry. So what if you have to sacrifice a few virgins during a dry spell?

But what if that logic no longer serves? What if consciousness is finite and limited and only feels infinite and eternal because of how human brains work?

Would that be okay? Why or why not?

When we are diagnosed with cancer, we go to the hospital. We submit to machines so complex, humans couldn’t have made them a century ago. Certainly you and I can’t make them. We receive treatments that involve understandings of biology and chemistry et cetera that are so nuanced and specialized we couldn’t possibly understand how they work without years of training and study. And yet we trust the doctors and get on with it. (As well we should).

Why is it that when consciousness is on the table, those of us with a spiritual bent are so quick to default to “Christ Mind” or “I am that I am?” To past lives and burning bushes? Ascended masters and psychics?

Giving attention is not spiritual. It’s practical. “Spiritual” is a label we might tack on later. But in the moment, it’s just practical. If you are hungry, you eat some food. You might later call the meal “divine,” but you didn’t eat because you needed something divine. You ate because you were hungry. If you are feeling confused, lost, guilty or scared, then you give attention.

Attention is about seeing what is happening as clearly as possible which also reveals what, if anything, should happen next: take an aspirin, go for a walk, make an amends, read some writer you’ve been avoiding, take up knitting. Attention is rational, inquisitive, honest and deliberative. It wants dialogue, no matter how tedious and frustrating, because dialogue is what delivers us to coherence. And coherence is what makes us happy and helpful, which is where we want to be, for our sake and everyone else’s.

When we think of our spiritual search / quest / process / practice / whatever, what do we take for granted? Who do we agree with without bothering to check their sources? Who do we not even let finish a sentence? What haven’t we discovered yet? How do we know? What does it mean to not know?

For me, giving attention begat a diverse, demanding and humbling curriculum which – in a particularly lovely afternoon – revealed itself as The Answer, while simultaneously making clear that it was going to go on Answering forever and that I didn’t personally matter to it in the least though I was more than welcome to tag along, lend my voice, et cetera. This was very liberating. My study has been mostly joyful and productive ever since. I truly wish the same for all beings.

So yeah. Maybe God makes it rain because She loves us and we’re good doobies. But maybe not. Maybe the best way to understand rain is through science, even if that means we have to let go of some cherished mythologies and semanticss and undertake some rigorous reading and study to understand it.

Is that okay? Why or why not?

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On Happiness, Seeking, and Justice

crocusesThe so-called spiritual search is circular in nature. It begins with a self winding its way through the world and it ends there, too. Whatever the way, it always delivers us to where we began: this. This this right here.

When most of us begin the search, we are unhappy. Life is confusing and unfair. Bad things happen with disturbing regularity. What was supposed to work does not, and we can’t find a consistently useful alternative.

We are unhappy and we want to be happy. It’s an old story, but a good one. It matters.

We turn to Jesus, say. Perhaps we do so formally – indulging liturgy and sacrament performed by men in medieval garb. Maybe we follow Thomas Merton’s idealized lead and graft on a half-assed Zen practice. Maybe we dart to the fringe and study A Course in Miracles which in turn dropkicks us into Sri Ramana and his confused and confusing lineage who unwittingly shove us into science and rational thought . . .

On and on it goes in apparently endless permutations until one day – for reasons that often aren’t realized until later, and don’t have to be realized at all – it clarifies that we are simply human observers having a human experience. That was all that was happening all along.

At this juncture, religious and spiritual explanations tend to confuse things, so we set them aside. Just give attention. What is really going on here?

When we do that, sooner or later, we learn that it is possible to be happy. Here and now. This body, this world. We learn that the means of happiness were always right at hand. They are inherent in us.

We eat simple healthy meals. We do as much of our growing, harvesting and cooking of our food as possible. We get a reasonable amount of exercise – walking, yoga, weight-lifting. We avail ourselves of consensual intimacy – hugs, hand-holding, making love. We partake of beauty – sitting by rivers or lakes, reading poetry, listening to music. If we have a headache we take an aspirin. If we’re sad, we say we’re sad. We trust what passes will pass.

And slowly but surely – though not perfectly, for perfection is the enemy – we become happier.

When we are happy in this way, we see clearly how simple and elegant the human experience can be: nurturing, gentle, generous. We realize that what makes us happy – healthy food, clean water, safety in which to walk and sleep and play, free time in which to make love, visit a museum, or go to a library, unsullied nature in which to hike and canoe – are privileges. And privilege is not just. Everyone without condition or exception should have access to these things.

For happiness is not ours alone, and who hoards the means to be happy – by design or ignorance – denies happiness to their sister, which injures (by postponing) the happiness of both.

Thus, the end of our spiritual search is not only our own peace and happiness, but our insistence that our calling is to be servants of the collective. We necessarily work to reform society that it might uniformly ensure fairness and justice. We advocate for policies and practices that make it easier for human beings to be happy. We advocate against practices that restrain, restrict or otherwise inhibit our natural inclination to love.

This advocacy is nonviolent. It is conducted by reason and example. It is okay to try and persuade people there’s a better way so long as you are not secretly (or not so secretly) planning to burn them at the stake if they disagree.

If we are not working hard to ensure the happiness of others, then our own happiness is not yet whole and full. It remains conditional and fragmented. And we will remain unsatisfied, frightened and confused. For it is well and truly written of joy: It ain’t real until it’s shared.

It is possible to be deeply and naturally happy, and this happiness by definition entails a profound desire to extend the means of that happiness to all living beings.

This is the law and the prophets.

On Spiritual Story-telling: Our Stories Matter

As languaging self-reflexive primates, we like to explain things. More to the point, we like stories that explain things – why the sun appears in the east and disappears in the west, why the North Star appears so consistently still in the sky, how people came to exist, why they have to die, what happens after they die, what’s beneath or behind the various surfaces we encounter, et cetera.

A good story satisfies us. It explains how the world works, what the proper order of life is, and how we fit into it. Good stories solve mysteries and bring clarity to complicated issues.

The thing is, these explanatory narratives are often wrong. The Romans butchered white castrated oxen on the day new consuls swore their oaths in order to appease Jupiter – that was wrong. Jonathan Edwards believed that if a person’s behavior deviated from very narrow tenets, then God would drop them into a fiery pit for all eternity – that was wrong. Lord Kelvin argued that élan vital infused matter, bringing it to life – that was wrong. Charmaine Yoest, Trump’s assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, believes that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer – that’s wrong.

The point is not to gloat, to point out all the poor saps who have fallen prey over the years to illusion, misinformation, junk science and so forth. They’re just human observers being human observers. Human psychology is human psychology. Thinking that we’re unique exceptions, that we would never make those kinds of errors, well, that’s an error. There are no high horses, no royal roads. The fool and the king both put their pants on one leg at a time. Us too.

The point is to become aware of the ways in which our own thinking, our own explanatory stories, deviate from coherence. If we can’t do that – or think that we don’t need to do it – then that’s our first example of incoherence. We are human observers having a human experience and that includes a) having nontrivial perceptual and cognitive blind spots and b) being sometimes blind to our own blindness. Pretending otherwise is silly.

One way to check our blindness is to notice words and phrases that “seem” explanatory but in fact just provide a hit of feel-good emotion. “Nothing real can be threatened.” “Jesus saves.” “If you take one step towards Allah, Allah will take ten steps towards you.” “Consciousness is all.” And so forth.

Those phrases are not helpful in terms of figuring out how to act in the world. If your child had a bad fall, saying “consciousness is all” won’t help you calm your child, get a medical kit, and decide whether to call for help. If you forget to mail a critical package for work, saying “Jesus saves” won’t magically retroactively mail it.

No, what those phrases do is make us feel better. Bad shit happens, call Jesus. Scary events happen but really it’s all neutral because there’s only consciousness. This divorce really hurts but don’t sweat it because neither the world nor the bodies in it are real. How many times have we said “God has a plan” and felt better about whatever adverse circumstances were then enveloping us?

It makes sense we want to feel better. It is healthy to develop strategies that will help us feel better. But if we are indulging fantasies, specious logic, and other forms of incoherence as the means of feeling better, then we are setting ourselves up to feel bad again. And maybe bring others along with us.

There is a better way.

If you tell me that calling on Jesus calms you so you can better attend your injured child or deal with some other crisis, ask why that is what calms you. If you didn’t believe Jesus was real and involved – was really there in some tangible way – then calling on him wouldn’t work.

And if you really do believe that God and his son Jesus are present and attentive to you in a personal way, then why do bad things happen at all? Why doesn’t God nudge the branch aside over which your child is about to trip? Why does Jesus wait on your call, rather than just showing up when needed?

If you say, “well, it’s just one person telling themselves God loves them or Jesus saves so what’s the harm” then you are missing the key point that nothing we do is without effect in a broader way. Everything we do affects those around us. It was just one Mayan who thought cutting the heart out of living prisoners was a good idea, but he managed to convince a lot of other Mayans it was a good idea, and so a lot of people died very painful deaths. Don’t sell yourself short!

Our fictions reverberate and those reverberations have a direct impact on other lives. If you are indulging a God who can actively affect your life, then you are simultaneously providing cover for folks who think God is active in their lives – and their God may want women to hide their bodies and submit to men, or blow up abortion clinics, or keep gay folks from marrying or adopting children or even just holding hands in public.

If you say, well, your God is different than the God of those crazy people, or that those crazy people are worshiping the wrong God, or the right God the wrong way, well, congratulations. Your argument means that everyone is entitled to their God, which means that some of those Gods are going to be very Jonathan Edwards-like. Some may even lean in directions that Mayans would find familiar. It is a slippery slope and our feet are bathed in grease.

I am saying that if you are turning in the direction of God – however you frame that turn and that-to-which-you-turn – then you are turning in the direction of incoherence. You are turning in the direction of pain – for you and for others, some of whom you love and care for, and wouldn’t hurt in a million years.

Feeling crappy is okay. Bad luck is okay. Rough patches are normal. They are all part of the human experience. Wanting to avoid what hurts – and minimize the hurt when it does happen – is also okay. That, too, is part of the human experience. A nifty thing about human observers is that we can reflect on our experience, dialogue with others, learn new practices, make predictions, adapt our behavior and so forth. It is possible to be happy – deepy happy – and in our happiness to be kind and helpful to others in tangible sustainable ways. It doesn’t take a deity.

When we feel better because we believe God or Jesus or the Buddha or the Beloved or the All is there for us, intervening for us, guiding us, then we are reenacting the same story our ancestors enacted. We probably aren’t cheering for the ritual sacrifice of virgins we kidnapped from neighboring towns, but we shouldn’t get too smug. Incoherence is still incoherent, even if its affects are not as dramatic as they once were.

Give attention to your stories. Notice how some of them purport to explain life and death and love and loss. Notice how these stories sustain you in the face of both internal and external adversity. Then notice how these stories are not actually explanatory at all. They’re more like code words to set off a temporary boost in our dopamine levels. They provide a temporary – a transitory – respite from what ails us.

If we can notice our incoherent stories, then we can ask what an actual coherent story would look like. How can we actually explain what scares us – death, loss, uncertainty, et cetera? If we don’t presently have helpful explanatory stories, is that okay? How should we go about getting one? What can we do in the interim? Who should we turn to for help?

Check your stories. Make a practice of telling more effective ones. Don’t be embarrassed to discard what no longer works – it happens to all of us. Don’t go with the first idea. Ask what this would look like to someone who doesn’t care what you do with your life. Look for questions you don’t want to ask, and answers you shy away from.

It is counter-intuitive to do this! It’s hard. We are not wired to doubt our intuitions and instincts. But it is helpful to persist. Not because we are going to become perfect or Godlike, but because we are going to become happier, and in our happiness be more helpful to those around us, which will increase their happiness in turn. That is a reasonable goal. That is meaningful living.

On Change and Constancy

All is in movement . . .

– Chuang Tzu

This is one of the insights that recurs across time and geography: life is change. Life is always changing. Change is the one constant. We can’t count on anything save not being able to count on anything.

The river is a river because it is always in motion. Its constancy is its changing.

Because this insight appears so regularly in so many human cultures, we might infer that does in in fact speak to an essential truth of the human experience. Everything is in flux, everything changes.

Change is often painful to one degree or another. Some of the spinach I bought last week went bad. That was a drag. My dogs aged and then died and that loss hurt. That was more than a drag. A lot more. My father aged, was laid low by serious debilitating illnesses, and died, and a year and a half later I am still sad, confused and lonesome. That is a deep and abiding grief.

Moreover, I witness the same process of decay in my wife and children and our friends. It’s almost like change and death are . . . inevitable.

So it seems like one reason human beings notice change – and adopt spiritual strategies for dealing with it – is that it is always there and it tends to hurt, sometimes intensely so. And lingering at the fringe of change, is death. Every change – no matter how small – points to the apparent end of what we love and, ultimately, of ourselves.

If we are honest about our experience of change, we can see how consistently and intensely it shades the interior landscape. It touches all of us. It brings us face-to-face with our weakness and inefficacy. I can’t stop a leaf from falling, let alone my child from suffering, or my body from dying.

Thus the insight (inhering in Chuang Tzu’s observation) that change is the only constant. Thus the question, what shall we do in the face of it?

Heraclitus observed that a river remains what it is because its contents continuously change. Its constant identity is its constant change.

The far end of our homestead is a little brook that feeds a larger river. Summer nights you can hear the river, as if the earth itself were whispering to the stars. I often walk past the horses at dawn to sit by the water. A river is truly an amazing thing to look at in a reflective way: it is moving constantly, and its movements vary in both subtle and dramatic ways, yet it is always this river.

We can take this observation a step further. Sometimes it can seem like the river is changing, but I am not – I am the stable observer sitting quietly on the bank. The river flows constantly – it changes constantly – but Sean doesn’t. Sean is the still silent observer in the midst of change.

Now that’s silly in a sense, because my body is in flux too. Blood flows, hair grows, stomach processes food and drink, neurons fire, thoughts come and go . . .

I’m like the river. It’s always me but both me and the container with which me seems to be associated are constantly changing.

There is a theme here. In all this change, we keep encountering someone or something that does not change. Yet when we look closely at this someone or something, it reveals that it, too, is changing.

Does this make sense? I am saying that there always seems to be an observer who does not change. Then, when you observe the observer, the observer is seen to be changing. But that change is always only relative to an observer who is not changing.

This is a loop! And it’s important to see it and not conflate it with some mystical truth, some mysterious force in the universe. The observer becomes the observed, revealing yet another observer. This recursivity is simply what it means to be a human observer.

So what we are saying is that the reflective experience of change is only possible because of a concomitant experience of constancy.

That is, we can only identify change by virtue of comparing it to something that does not change. The perceiving subject that we are – and remain for some period of time – is effectively brought forth by the fluid environment that surrounds it.

It is change that makes things the same. Constancy and change are not unconnected opposites. They are yoked. The one that makes the other possible.

When I say “the one makes the other possible” I am really making two distinct but intimately related statements.

First, I am saying that what appears to be two (change and constancy, in this case) is in fact one. It is (to adopt Chuang Tzu’s phrasing) a single movement.

Second, I am confirming the appearance of two (or many). That is, I am saying that even though constancy and changed are yoked and thus one, they appear to us separately, as more than one. This is a functional distinction that we do not need to be alarmed about. It’s not a problem to be solved.

gazing east across the river, our home a distant image

If everything changed, then there would be no change. There would be no way to know change. Thus, everything can’t change – otherwise, there wouldn’t be change. Something has to remain the same. But that something – when looked at – reveals that it, too, changes. So everything does change. But if everything changes . . .

It comes back to that loop again. That loop has thrown a lot of us off for a long time. When we really encounter it, it can feel as if we are literally touching infinity or eternity. It can feel like we’ve reached the holy grail of consciousness.

But really, we are just making tangible contact with an ordinary aspect of being a human observer. It’s natural. It’s functional. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.

The most effective and peaceful way out of the loop – or, if you prefer, to integrate the loop – is to be grateful for the human observer that you are, grateful for the perspective you embody by which such a vibrant, complex and amazing world is brought forth.